Presh’s murder was never solved. 20 years later, her granddaughter, a former Miss. journalist, seeks answers.

Campbell is searching for answers in her grandmother's cold-case death. She recently published...
Campbell is searching for answers in her grandmother's cold-case death. She recently published a podcast highlighting that effort.(WLBT)
Published: Jun. 1, 2023 at 3:26 PM CDT
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GREENVILLE, Miss. (WLBT) - From her involvement in civil rights to the Paper Mache mannequin she kept in the back seat of her “old Ford,” Presh is remembered as much for her quirky habits as for her work in politics and her community.

But you can’t talk about Presh, a Greenville native only identified by her nickname, without talking about her murder and the mystery that still surrounds it 20 years later.

Larrison Campbell, a former Mississippi Today reporter and Presh’s granddaughter, tells that story in Witnessed: Devil in the Ditch, a recent podcast published on the Apple platform.

The production was a labor of love for Campbell, one that brought her closer to her grandmother but no closer to finding out who killed her.

“I think I saw her in a much more holistic way,” she said. “I saw the quirks of hers as a bigger picture, as the giant force she was.”

[Listen to Larrison Campbell’s podcast here.]

Presh had her eccentricities, from the way she dressed to the time she stopped at a complete stranger’s house on her way to Texas to ask for directions. It was unclear if the mannequin was in her car at the time.

But it was her fly-by-the-seat attitude that likely propelled Presh to get involved in civil rights, even if it meant that some people in her hometown might not like her for doing so.

“It was all very much this sort of, ‘This might be difficult, I get that this might have implications for my family, I might get ostracized, but I’m not going to think about that right now,’” Campbell said. “I think I really did come to a much bigger appreciation of that quality of hers.”

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Campbell and her team tracked down witnesses, talked to detectives, and even interviewed family members and friends to find out more about the woman described as a “big Democrat” and to find out more about her death.

Despite it happening nearly 20 years ago, Campbell still remembers receiving her dad’s call to break the news.

“I burst into tears... Full body sobs, the kind where you can’t catch your breath,” she tells listeners.

Campbell had been out of college for about a year and was working in New York at the time.

She remembers 2003 well, telling listeners it was the first go-round of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s whirlwind romance and the blackout that cut out power for millions in the Northeast. She recalls that blackout fondly, saying she and her friends were drinking warm vodka sodas on the roof, finally able to see stars in the Big Apple’s night sky.

Little did Campbell know that that happiness would be short-lived, when on the night of Friday, June 13, 2003, her grandmother was killed inside her Wilzin Park home.

Presh’s sister found her body the next day on the floor of her garden room, the Clarion-Ledger reported at the time, having been killed by blunt force trauma.

The 85-year-old mother of three and grandmother of five was one of 13 people killed in the Mississippi River town that year. And like each of those other victims, her killer has never been brought to justice.

Campbell points that out early in her podcast, saying the Greenville Police Department has a roughly 15 percent solve rate, meaning that many families in the small town have to deal with not knowing why their loved ones were killed, or who killed them.

“I really didn’t start seeing this as a story that was worth telling anybody outside my family until I found that statistic,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, my family’s not unique. This is a problem that a lot of people are living with.’”

Greenville homicides by yearNumber reportedNumber cleared
2023 year-to-date86
Source: Murder Accountability Project

Figures provided by the Murder Accountability Project show that between 2003, the year Presh was killed, and 2017, 101 homicides were reported in Greenville, a city of roughly 28,000 people. Of those, just eight have been cleared.

Cleared, according to Campbell, simply means an arrest has been made, but no one has been convicted or pleaded guilty.

“So many of the people who commit these murders aren’t in jail. They’re in a car driving by your house. You probably stroll by them in a supermarket or see them pumping gas,” she tells listeners. “The families of these victims have learned to live without knowing.”

Greenville Police Chief Marcus Turner questioned Campbell’s data and said her comments are not fair to the officers with his department today. “This year we’ve had eight homicides [and] have made six arrests,” he said.

Turner, who was just starting on the force at the time of Presh’s death, vaguely remembered the case. He says it likely wasn’t solved due to a lack of witnesses and evidence. He says a private investigator brought on by the family to look into the case also could not come to a disposition.

Campbell says it wasn’t a lack of witnesses, but a lack of effort in the department.

“They had the right people in place. They had the State Crime Lab coming in and collecting evidence. There was just no energy put into the investigation,” she said. “You know, this just feels like a real lack of effort.”

Campbell has not seen her grandmother’s case file and was not allowed to see it despite asking to.

“I have one aunt who is very tenacious and so she was able to, over the years, sort of compile most of the evidence logs, some of the police memos, certain things like that,” she said. “But I think there’s a lot more to the picture. I would love to see the whole police file. So, if nothing else, this is my plea to the Greenville police to please let me see it.”

Turner, who says he placed an emphasis on solving cold cases shortly after becoming chief 2.5 years ago, says he can’t turn over the file because Presh’s case is still open.

“If any new [information] comes up, we’ll investigate it,” he said. “Just because it’s been so long, it’s still an open case.”

Turner says Presh's case is still open and that he will investigate any new leads that turn up.
Turner says Presh's case is still open and that he will investigate any new leads that turn up.(WLBT)

As in other unsolved murders, people who knew Presh have their theories. Campbell touches on many of them in her reporting, including interviewing a cousin that even some family members believe could have been involved.

The nationally recognized journalist, who has covered everything from healthcare to Mississippi gubernatorial races, says one of the toughest aspects of reporting on her grandmother’s death was interviewing that cousin, who she only identifies as “Richard.”

“I brought so much of my childhood with this person into the interview. I also brought years of hearing my aunts, who strongly believed he had some culpability,” she said. “As a journalist, you take really a lot of pride in being able to be objective and say, ‘OK, I can step back... I can be objective about it.’ And the fact is, I couldn’t.”

Campbell, who points out that Richard has never been charged, tells listeners she questioned whether she should give her cousin a hug once she pulled up to his home.

She said she felt doing so could be disloyal to her aunts. Not doing it would show she wasn’t going into the interview with an open mind.

She eventually did give her cousin a hug and the two remain in contact today.

Accusations against Richard were just one example of how Presh’s murder impacted the entire family. Richard’s mom, identified as “Charlotte” in the podcast, also was ostracized because of it.

“One of the things I found when I talked to her was that she referred to my grandmother’s death as ‘the tragedy.’ I think it became very clear that for her the tragedy was twofold. It wasn’t just losing her sister... it was that she lost so many other people when they began to suspect her son,” Campbell said. “I think the last 20 years have been really, really difficult for her.”

Charlotte has since passed away.

Early on, Campbell was unsure whether family members would even participate in the podcast and was surprised when several, including her father, agreed to talk.

“As someone from the South, you’re not supposed to get in there and talk about your family and talk about family stuff,” she said. “It’s kind of one of the biggest faux pas you can commit, talking about your family and putting it into a public forum.”

Campbell also questioned whether Presh herself would have approved of her story being shared.

“My grandmother was an intensely private person,” she said. “She would get lots of her awards for her service work, and she would consistently turn them down because she didn’t like that kind of attention. So, the idea that I would then do a podcast, I’m really not sure it would have, at least the initial concept, would have had her blessing.”

Larrison Campbell on podcast collaboration

Despite eschewing publicity, Presh was well-known in her community and in politics, so much so that governors would visit her home. The Clarion-Ledger reported that less than two weeks before her death, Presh hosted Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.

As one who fought for civil rights, raised money for the Democratic Party, and was involved in numerous civic activities, Presh strongly supported Musgrove, a Democrat who was elected to office following Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice.

Presh also stayed active in her community, even into her 80s. Among efforts, she and other volunteers established a school for juveniles at the Washington County Youth Detention Center, according to her obituary, also published in the Clarion-Ledger.

Roy Campbell, an attorney in Jackson says participating in his daughter’s podcast allowed him to share some of the positive memories of his mother – memories that should define Presh more than her murder.

“She was a great role model as a parent,” he said. “The podcast focuses on my mother, but my father was an equally strong role model and equally committed to social justice... That’s how they lived their lives.”

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